A significant employment law case involving retaliation under Title VII is on the docket for the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened its 2008-2009 term on October 6. Oral arguments will be heard on the case of Crawford v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville. In that case the Sixth Circuit Federal Appeals Court held that an employee who is fired in retaliation for statements made during a company’s internal investigation of sexual harassment allegations falls outside the protection of Title VII.

In the underlying case, Plaintiff Vicky Crawford claimed that she was fired because of statements she made to the company’s H.R. representative when Crawford was questioned about sexual harassment allegations another employee had made against Crawford’s supervisor. Crawford was not the employee who made the original complaint. However, when called into H.R. and questioned, she confirmed that she too had been sexually harassed by the supervisor.

Crawford was fired shortly thereafter, and filed a lawsuit claiming retaliatory discharge in violation of Title VII, which prohibits retaliation against an employee because that employee “has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter [of Title VII],” or because the employee “has made a charge, testified, assisted or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.”

The court in the Crawford case held that even if Crawford’s employer fired her in retaliation for statements she made in the company’s internal investigation, that investigation was not an investigation “under this subchapter” because it was purely internal. In other words, no EEOC complaint had been filed, nor was any lawsuit pending.

That outcome, though counterintuitive at first blush, does have a certain logic behind it. The court in Crawford reasoned that if Title VII’s retaliation protection were extended to cover every internal investigation conducted regardless of whether any formal charges had been filed, employers would be less likely to conduct full investigations based solely on internal complaints for fear that they would be blanketing every employee interviewed with immunity from firing. And indeed, it is not difficult to imagine situations where nonperforming employees could take advantage of the fact that their supervisor has been accused by another employee and attempt to shield themselves from disciplinary action by confirming completely baseless allegations.

Employee advocates and some academics, on the other hand, view the outcome in Crawford as having a profound chilling effect on the willingness of employees to speak truthfully about a supervisor’s harassment if interviewed by H.R., rendering the company’s investigation completely ineffectual, and impeding the employer’s legitimate objective of ridding the workplace of sexual harassers.

It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court rules on this case.